The Christmas story is well-known. We know the decorations, the family parties, the carols, the manger scene, even the familiar Scripture passages. But have you ever considered the questions of Christmas?
Five questions spiral throughout the ancient stories surrounding Christ’s birth. These questions open the door to some of life’s great mysteries.
By exploring questions asked by the Magi, Elizabeth, Mary, Zechariah, and the crowd witnessing the naming of John the Baptist, readers explore their own curiosities about purpose, favor, trust, justice, doubt, and promise:
- How can we find truth and meaning?
- Why is the world so unfair sometimes?
- Why do people have to suffer?
- How can we trust the unseen?
- How can we design the future we desire?
Writing in a warm and affectionate tone, author Rob Burkhart unwraps the mystery of the questions of Christmas, revealing a different way to read the Christmas story that allows believers young and old to live its truths throughout the year.
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About the Author
Rob Burkhart (MDiv, Fuller Theological; PhD, Michigan State University) has been a pastor, educator, and denominational leader in the Assemblies of God denomination for more than thirty years. He is the author of Five Questions of Christmas, To Be Like Jesus, and Awakening the Sleeping Giant: Maximizing Your Sunday School. Rev. Burkhart has also published several study guides and contributed to numerous magazines and publications. He speaks frequently in churches, at retreats, and at educational seminars. He is a father and grandfather and lives in Detroit, Michigan.
Read an Excerpt
Five Questions of Christmas
Unlocking the Mystery
By Rob Burkhart
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2015 Robin Burkhart
All rights reserved.
How Will I Know?
Zechariah's Journey from Mistrust to Conviction
Each of the four Gospels tells the story of Jesus — Jesus' life, his teachings, his death at the hands of the Roman government and their co-conspirators in the Jewish Sanhedrin. Although each of the Gospels is in some sense a "biography" of Jesus, only Matthew and Luke mention his birth. The most detailed Nativity story is in the Gospel of Luke 1 and 2. Luke intentionally gathered eyewitness accounts and carefully researched his stories. His goal was to tell the story of Jesus in a trustworthy and straightforward way that both Jews and Gentiles would understand. Luke wanted his readers to see how God's promises were fulfilled through Jesus.
Luke begins his Gospel account with two of Jesus' relatives, a priest named Zechariah and his wife, Elizabeth.
In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years. (Luke 1:5-7)
Zechariah and his wife, Elizabeth, were known for their personal holiness and obedience to God's commandments. Despite their righteousness, Zechariah and Elizabeth were childless. They were like the other barren couples in Scripture who became the patriarchs and matriarchs of faith: Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 11), Isaac and Rebekah (Genesis 25), and Jacob and Rachel (Genesis 30). God kept His promise that Abraham's offspring would be like the stars, so numerous that no one could count them (Genesis 15:5-6), despite infertility and even menopause. God could open wombs, but God hadn't for this couple. There was no miracle child toddling around Zechariah and Elizabeth's house, getting into the kitchen cupboards.
Once when [Zechariah] was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. Now at the time of the incense offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. (Luke 1:8-12)
Zechariah is in the midst of this extremely important assignment in the most sacred part of the temple. A crowd of people are praying and waiting outside. Suddenly an angel appears. Zechariah is absolutely terrified. After all, he knows the stories of priests who were struck dead for doing their job incorrectly (Leviticus 10; Numbers 16). But instead of judgment, the angel Gabriel delivers a special message from God.
But the angel said to him, "Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord." (Luke 1:13-17)
It was a truly unanticipated announcement. Although there was, as we have seen, precedent in earlier biblical stories for just this kind of miracle, there had been no prophets or prophesies for four hundred years. And now there's an angel with a personalized message from God: Elizabeth will bear a son who will bring joy to many people and be great in the sight of the Lord. This was completely outside Zechariah's understanding of how the world worked.
Zechariah had no expectation of miraculous offspring. He and Elizabeth had prayed for children since they were newlyweds. Each month their hopes soared and then soured. Their youth and middle age were gone, and now it was too late. Elizabeth's biological clock had stopped ticking. They were elderly and childless. Why would God answer their prayer with a miracle child now? But this announcement is much bigger than Zechariah and Elizabeth. The angel said this miracle son would be a great prophet like Elijah who would prepare God's people for the coming of the Messiah. That was even more unbelievable news! On that day Zechariah may have been afraid to get his hopes up. Maybe he couldn't face one more steep drop on his emotional roller coaster. Maybe he was afraid to believe his dream could come true. But Zechariah wasn't prepared to trust his future or his hopes and dreams to anyone, not even an angel.
Given all this, Zechariah's skepticism of both the messenger and the message seems warranted, even justified. The angel's prediction impacted his own family and all the Jewish people. It was terrifying to have these deep desires for a child and a Messiah exposed to anyone, even an angel. Surely Zechariah is allowed a moment of doubt or a question for clarification. Zechariah gathers his courage and finds his voice.
Zechariah said to the angel, "How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years." The angel replied, "I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur." (Luke 1:18-20)
Gabriel doesn't appreciate having his integrity questioned. He was sent from the presence of God to deliver this message of good news. Mission accomplished. Unlike Samson's parents who received multiple clarifications about their Nazirite child (Judges 13), Zechariah's parental pronouncement comes to a screeching halt. Gabriel leaves.
Meanwhile the people were waiting for Zechariah, and wondered at his delay in the sanctuary. When he did come out, he could not speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. He kept motioning to them and remained unable to speak. When his time of service was ended, he went to his home. (Luke 1:21-23)
Zechariah leaves the temple in silence. The crowd sees that he's noticeably altered by his angelic encounter. Mysteriously mute, he uses gestures to communicate the unimaginable news. Somehow he finishes his responsibilities and then travels back to his home in the Judean hills. He and Elizabeth keep a low profile as God's promise takes form. "After those days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she remained in seclusion. She said, 'This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people'" (Luke 1:24-25).
A Matter of Trust
Zechariah's situation crystallizes the questions everyone asks: How will I know that this is so? How can I be sure? Whom can I trust?
Trust is so pervasive and necessary that we become oblivious to it. In countless encounters each day we trust our family and friends, our business colleagues, and service providers. Our answer to the question, "How can I be sure?" sets the course of our lives. Will we be open and adventurous or fearful and defensive? It depends on trust.
Every investor looks for a stable portfolio that protects capital and reaps dividends. Every spouse wants a marriage that holds firm in good times and bad. Every employee wants to work for a company that is fair and reputable. In all these arenas and many more people seek a safe harbor, a place that can weather life's inevitable storms.
Meanwhile, voices all around us shout, "Trust me!" We trust particular political candidates and financial institutions. We put faith in doctors, schoolteachers, airline pilots, and restaurant cooks. We trust people we'll never meet — elevator inspectors, software developers, and utility workers. From the day we are born, trust infuses our daily lives. People learn early whether they are safe, protected, and cared for and whether they can trust their world and those in it. According to some psychologists, this is the first thing we learn: the child in the crib, hungry, wet, and miserable can only cry. And the child learns about how to trust, whom to trust — whether to trust — from what happens after the child cries. If a loving and caring adult responds with a dry diaper, a bottle, a gentle voice, and a loving touch, the child learns that she is safe and that other people can be trusted. An angry, cursing, or uncaring visage and rough handling teaches the child that the world is a dangerous place and people are not to be trusted.
Emotional or physical abandonment or neglect damages a child's ability to trust. The child learns that he or she is not important, is of little or no value, and may grow to feel unworthy of love, care, and protection. These children lose the ability to trust others and come to believe that they must take care of themselves because no one else will.
Trust is risky business. Even if we grow up in a home brimming with love and care, someone will eventually break our trust. Someone we thought trustworthy lies, betrays, cheats, abandons, or abuses. In those moments we learn to withhold our trust and protect ourselves.
Knowing when to withhold trust is essential to avoiding vulnerability and risk. People learn to recognize and respect their gut instincts. Ignoring your intuition opens the door to unexpected and sometimes disastrous results. Not trusting the too-good-to-be-true infomercial saves money, aggravation, and disappointment. Not trusting the old rickety ladder prevents broken bones and medical bills. That isn't pathological. It's prudent.
But in its extreme forms, distrust creates disastrous results. Relationships are ruined by suspicion and jealousy. One's decision-making ability is paralyzed by fear, skepticism, and misgivings. This deep distrust no longer protects. It becomes a personalized prison.
Trust is a conundrum.
Our simultaneous need for trust and safety requires a fine-tuned balance. Excessive trust creates gullible fools or vulnerable victims. Obsessive safeguarding leads to paranoid vigilantes or homebound hermits. We need to find a spot between the two extremes.
Not everything is as it appears. Some people we encounter are bold-faced liars, con artists, and manipulators. But breaking trust is not always intentional or malicious. People may not have the courage to protect us or the persistence needed to keep their commitment. Maybe they are selfish or overwhelmed by their own needs. They might be unhelpful, oblivious, or ignorant. Regardless of the reason, we are let down. We lose a little faith in humanity. We withdraw our trust. "Like a bad tooth or a lame foot is trust in a faithless person in time of trouble" (Proverbs 25:19).
This struggle with trust is not new. In every era, humans create societal guidelines and interact with the natural world. The paradigms change with culture, experience, and time. Much of this received wisdom proves false in the end. The certainties of one generation soon become rejected notions and quaint anachronisms. But for some people these changes are devastating and terrifying. What seemed like bedrock truth is only shifting sand. "There is a way that seems right to a person, but its end is the way to death" (Proverbs 14:12).
Like a person who's drowning, we frantically look around for assistance. We grab possessions, hoping they'll be a life preserver to keep us afloat. We latch on to other people hoping they'll be the lifeguards who pull us back to shore. We cling to theories, philosophies, and programs like a boat that will get us to our destination. There are innumerable things we trust that cannot save us.
Some people trust money. They use financial wealth and material possessions as a hedge against the destructive forces of life. Money gives you access to better education, medical care, and safe neighborhoods. Money can help you influence others and champion your causes. But money cannot make you truly safe, no matter how much wealth you stockpile. Economic systems fail, natural disasters strike, and tragedies happen. In the rubble left by the 2011 tsunami in Japan, rescue workers found safes containing millions in cash. Their owners believed that wealth and their possessions gave them security. But the wealthiest died with the poorest that day. Mansions and hovels were swept away together. Money cannot be trusted. "Those who trust in their riches will wither, but the righteous will flourish like green leaves" (Proverbs 11:28).
Some people trust power. Being part of a group — a labor union, a political party, a club, or a gang — is one way to exert power and control. At the national scale, political and military powers look intimidating. No one denies that those with power impose their will on those without it and use power to protect themselves from the circumstance and consequences of life. Most of the time, powerful trumps powerless in the game of life. But much of life is beyond the control of anyone no matter how powerful they are. Trusting power is deceptive.
In Zechariah's time most people would have trusted the all-powerful Roman Empire, not Zechariah's wild-eyed son — the wilderness prophet with his strange clothes and even stranger diet. Nor would they have gambled on his cousin, the poor carpenter and wandering rabbi from Nazareth. Both died at the hands of the rich and powerful.
Two thousand years later, billions revere the baptizer and the carpenter. The great and powerful of their day are remembered as mere bit players in Jesus and John's story. Soldiers of the cross have replaced the great Roman legions that once trampled every adversary but have been relegated to the dusty pages of history and unmarked graves.
Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help.
When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish. (Psalm 146:3-4)
Some people trust possessions. They obsess over the latest fashions, the fastest cars, or the newest technology. They collect music, movies, shoes, art, or souvenirs. They accumulate belongings at a rapid pace while their basements, garages, and storage facilities overflow. At some point, their idolatry is exposed. Their possessions are put on display at garage sales and estate auctions like cadavers in a morgue, lifeless and decaying. Neighbors marvel at how much clutter was packed in the house. Adult children sort the idolatrous debris of their parents' lives, wondering why they spent so much time and money on such things.
Their idols are like scarecrows in a cucumber field,
and they cannot speak;
they have to be carried,
for they cannot walk.
Do not be afraid of them,
for they cannot do evil,
nor is it in them to do good.
Some people trust idols and heroes. They fixate on athletes, celebrities, and charismatic leaders. They idealize their families and friends. Their worship isn't religious, but it commands extravagant and excessive devotion. Idol worship is the passionate fervor that permeates sports arenas and concert venues. It's the shimmering tributes at the funerals of public figures and family members. Underneath this idol worship is a transaction: loyalty and devotion in exchange for attention and affection. The worshipers are exhilarated by their idol experiences and crave more. Eventually the idol disappoints, the thrill fades, and the worshipers move on to their next obsession. "All who make idols are nothing, and the things they delight in do not profit; their witnesses neither see nor know. And so they will be put to shame" (Isaiah 44:9).
Some people trust only themselves. They pour their energy and concentration into their careers, their physiques, their academic credentials, and their accolades. But someday soon, our toned bodies will weaken, our shiny trophies will tarnish, and our sharp minds will fail. We are not indestructible nor immortal.
What they trust in is fragile;
what they rely on is a spider's web.
They lean on the web, but it gives way;
they cling to it, but it does not hold.
(Job 8:14-15 NIV)
But nothing can remove our primal need for trust. Woven deep into the fabric of every life is the need for someone or something to believe in.
The problem isn't our need for trust. It's what we choose to trust.
This deep conundrum about trust — our deep need to trust, and yet the many times we've learned that what we want to trust is only partially trustworthy — is what Zechariah's question expressed. Whom can I trust? And how can I know that the one I trust is worthy of that trust?
Excerpted from Five Questions of Christmas by Rob Burkhart. Copyright © 2015 Robin Burkhart. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
"Prologue": What's Happened to Christmas?,
"Chapter 1": How Will I Know? Zechariah's Journey from Mistrust to Conviction,
"Chapter 2": How Can This Be? Mary's Journey from Tragedy to Resilience,
"Chapter 3": Why Has This Happened to Me? Elizabeth's Journey from Unfairness to Gratitude,
"Chapter 4": What Will This Child Become? The Journey from Control to Creativity,
"Chapter 5": Where Is the Child? The Magi's Journey from Disappointment to True Treasure,
"Epilogue": Let Us Go Now to Bethlehem The Shepherd's Journey from Oblivion to Faith,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I must confess, the title initially confused me, and I was expecting a different book. Once I got into reading, however, it was so much more than I was expecting! The questions asked are those which were asked AT the first Christmas, not questions ABOUT Christmas. It makes a large difference. This book is small, but I happened to read it slowly, one chapter at a time, while going about other tasks in my life. So it happened that each chapter hit and spoke deeply to different life events I was going through at that exact moment. I was very encouraged by Mr. Burkhart’s words and the truths he spoke about in a very clear and understandable way. His writing style is very easy for anyone to relate to, and this would be a great book to read through with older children. Mr. Burkhart doesn’t rehash the “love, joy, peace to all” message that most Christmas-themed books will do. He looks deeper, helping the reader see how Christmas, and the events surrounding it relate directly to our search for identity, purpose, and meaning, and really brings those truths to light in a great way. I was encouraged and challenged with each page. And the questions at the end of each chapter helped me pause and dig deeper into the thoughts and understanding I was gaining. I highly recommend this work! I received a review copy of this work from the publisher through NetGalley